My husband and I found that becoming parents and transitioning from being a couple to a family was exciting. Yes... but it was also very challenging. After the first few weeks of the babymoon we found ourselves wrestling with sleepless nights, new responsibilities, reduced finances, a shift in identity and when we weren't careful - a creeping sense of disconnection from each other. I think it is the same for many couples.
The challenge, we discovered, is to keep communicating, stay connected and approach parenting as a team. Otherwise as a couple you'll soon find yourselves so consumed with your new roles as parents that you lose sight of the fact you are also partners, friends and lovers.
I'm not surprised the greatest threat to a couple's relationship comes in the first three years after having a baby together. Often the hardest period of adjustment for mum, dad and their relationship comes when the man (in the majority of cases) returns to work after his two-week parental leave and the woman finds herself alone with their newborn.
Many dads today find themselves facing two, seemingly conflicting demands - a sense of increased financial responsibility with a strong desire to be involved and engaged with their new baby and their partner. New mums can find the transition even harder as they find themselves left to cope with the constant demands of a newborn on their own. Even the most competent woman can find herself feeling at times overwhelmed and lonely especially if she misses being at work or doesn't have a good support network around her.
Many women on maternity leave find that their world shrinks in terms of connections and content and it can sometimes be difficult for them to keep sight of their identities beyond being a mother. If and when they do return to paid-work either part time or full time, it is still often the woman who is considered the "on call" parent.
Various couples today are determined to parent differently to their parents or grandparents and are keen not to slide into gender-stereotypical ways of parenting. However, it can be a challenge to navigate new ground without a map, especially when parenting terminology has yet to catch up with the co-parenting or partnership models that we see an increasing number of Millennial parents wanting to develop. It was interesting to note that new research, commissioned by WaterWipes, showed that 78% of respondents still equated the parent responsible for providing financial support as the "main family provider".
I think it's time that we saw "providing" in much wider terms than just finances. New parents are much more likely to see themselves as a team if they can move away from labels such as "breadwinner" and "stay at home mum or dad" and can see themselves as providing together for the family - whether that is love, care, support, engagement, space or finances.
The exciting thing is that when it comes to exactly how they divide or share roles, couples today are being much more creative and intentional about how they parent together. We need a new vernacular that better represents those couples looking to do things differently.
It is interesting that many surveyed also referred to themselves or their partners as "babysitting" when looking after their own child. This is another area where a change in terminology could better help express the level of engagement and involvement both parents have with their child. Perhaps phrases like "is home with" or "is at the park with" would be more appropriate.
However roles and responsibilities are divided, today's parenting is much more about pulling together than about who does what. When both mum and dad feel they are a team providing for their baby (with all that entails), the better outcomes they are likely to experience for their child and for their relationship.
We need to equip and encourage parenting couples to confidently discover together what is best for them and their new family.
My top tips for when two become three (or more!):
1. Start as you mean to go on. Whether it's choosing a changing bag that both of you would be happy to be seen carrying or going to ante natal classes together - involve dad from the start. For some mums that will mean letting go of control and appreciating that there is more than one way to do certain tasks.
2. Don't keep score. You might be tempted to compare notes on tiredness, hours worked, money earned or nappies changed but it could be counter-productive for your relationship. Remember you are on the same side, so focus on pulling together and showing each other appreciation rather than scoring points.
3. Keep the spark alive. Sex might not be on the agenda for a few weeks (or even months) after the birth. Small things such as a kiss, flirty message or appreciative comment will hopefully help build intimacy until you are ready to make love again.